A “Bavarian Revolution”?

Source: Wikimedia CommonsSource: Wikimedia Commons

“The election [on Sunday 14th of October]”, writes the Süddeutsche Zeitung, “was a typical Bavarian revolution. Fireworks, a lot of smoke [and] dreams in Schwabing [a central Munich district in which the Greens obtained 34% of the votes] which, throughout the night, felt like they could become true. The morning after, the Alps are still in their place and the CSU is still in power.”

At first sight, Bavaria’s regional election results do seem to be, in fact, a revolution of sorts. The Christian Social Union (CSU), Bavarian sister party of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU), gained a mere 37% of the votes, its worst result since 1950 in a region in which it peaked at 60% in 2003. The Social Democratic Party (SPD), a party in a seemingly irreversible slope towards Pasokification – a term, named after the Greek social democratic party PASOK, used to define declining social-democratic parties – barely reached 10%. It was, in fact, overtaken by the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), a party which, at 11.5% of the votes, entered its fifteenth (of sixteen) regional assembly but returned substantially fewer MPs than expected. The liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP) only just cleared the 5% hurdle (with 5.1% of the votes), to return to the Bavarian parliament after five years. The winners of the night, it seemed, were the Greens, who at 17.5%, doubled their 2013 result, and the regional Freie Wähler (“Free Voters”), which, at 11.6%, came third and will most likely be the CSU’s next coalition partner.

For the CSU, the campaign was disastrous. Marked by constant infighting between the party chairman and Merkel’s minister of the interior, Horst Seehofer, and Bavaria’s first minister, Markus Söder, the party have gained the image of being out of touch and unconcerned with the government of the state, instead focused on internal power struggles at a federal level. This stood in stark contrast with the Greens’ and the “Free Voters’” pragmatic programmes and grassroots campaigning, and is the reason why Seehofer has been facing calls to stand down, even from within his own party. Whether, however, the CSU have been “humiliated”, as The Guardian claim, is doubtful. Their 37% of votes would, after all, make them leaders of a coalition in most states – including Hessen, which will elect a new assembly in two weeks’ time and in which the CDU are polling at below 30%. Moreover, as Kurt Kister writes, the prospect of a left-wing government in Bavaria is “as implausible as always”, with the SPD and the Greens combined reaching 10% less than a CSU at its all-time worst.

The “greenest spot in Germany”

The Greens, nevertheless, emerged as the biggest winners of the night, their success being explicable by considering Bavarian demographics. In a traditionally conservative state, they have succeeded in becoming the go-to party of both German environmentalist romantics and the humanist urban professional classes. Their votes, as was the case with the SPD in previous elections, were largely focused in the cities – particularly in Würzburg and Munich, which has become, as the Süddeutsche Zeitung writes, “the greenest spot in the Federal Republic”. If there was a “central Munich” parliament, it notes, their 43% of the votes would hand them an absolute majority.

The party has been able to develop an image which appeals to those groups: young (at an average of only 41 years) multinational (a third of the residents of those areas are not German) and environmentally conscious (only 37% own a car). Bearing little resemblance to the long-gone 1980s anti-NATO alliance, the Greens have been able to largely transcend the left-right divide by focusing on municipal issues attracting a broad consensus – the environment, social expenditure, individual rights and advocating for what Diego Íñiguez calls “an international community governed by certain moral standards”. Most importantly, perhaps, they have managed to project the image of a “government party” – as opposed to a “protest party”, a concept derided by the German electorate. All the above means that, for the first time in German history, the Greens lead the government in Baden-Württemberg, the country’s second richest State, and are the second political force in Bavaria, its richest one.

The same holds true for the Free Voters, a predominantly Bavarian self-described “coalition of neighbours” which, through its municipal-focused campaign, has primarily attracted socially conservative voters who were discontented with the CSU’s focus on national politics. The unlikelihood of the strongly socially conservative CSU striking a coalition deal with their much derided enemies, the liberal Greens, means the candidate of the Free Voters, Hubert Aiwanger, is likely to become Bavaria’s next vice-president.

The road to Pasokfication

The biggest loser of the night, the German press widely acknowledge, was the SPD. Losing half their votes, they have gone from leading the opposition to being the fifth largest party in the chamber, only above the politically irrelevant FDP. Andrea Nahles, the party’s leader of six months, has already faced calls to leave the grand coalition, take a more unequivocally leftist stance and begin revitalizing the Social Democrats as Jeremy Corbyn has the Labour Party in the UK. Indeed, her reaction to the SPD’s performance in Bavaria, claiming that “the style of [federal] government must change”, suggests she is entertaining this idea increasingly seriously. A poor performance in the upcoming state election in Hessen might increase fears that the SPD is going the way of the Socialist Party in France, thus forcing her hand.

What conclusions can be drawn from the Bavarian election? On the one hand, the success of the Greens and the Free Voters and the fall of the CSU and the SPD points towards an important trend – the decline of the “national party” (the CDU and SPD, the so-called Volksparteien) as the main political unit in Germany. Voters at regional elections, as the results have shown, care more about concrete local policies than they do about big ideological debates. As Professor Andreas Klee, of the University of Bremen, argues, this is particularly noticeable in the case of voters under the age of 30, among whom the CSU polled at 26% and the Greens at 24%. Young voters, Klee holds, exhibit several voting patterns which can largely help explain the election results. They care about only some specific issues – predominantly the environment – and are more likely to “vote against [controversial] policies” than “in favour” of any concrete set thereof. This undoubtedly played against the CSU, which largely based its campaign on the refugee crisis, and benefited parties, such as Greens or the Free Voters, who chose to prioritize less controversial areas, such as increases in teaching staff, the scrapping of nursery fees or an increase in doctors.

A similar view is shared by members of the federal grand coalition, many of whom criticized the CSU for that reason. In an interview before the election, Bundestag Deputy Speaker Thomas Oppermann, of the SPD, blamed the poor performance on Seehofer and his excessive focus on “the refugee question”, which had led to “extreme polarization”, pushed every other issue to one side and gave the coalition parties an “awful” image. In defending the CDU’s candidate in Hessen, who had lashed out against Seehofer, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, the CDU’s party chair, justified his reaction by reminding the press that the CSU’s attitude has made his campaign “increasingly difficult”. Calls for Seehofer’s resignation as First Minister have also come from within his own party.

The calm after the storm?

Although Bavaria awoke to what seemed like the calm after the storm, the German press widely acknowledge that another poor SPD and CDU performance could have profound consequences for the German government as a whole, not just for the SPD. A poor result in Hessen for the CDU, combined with national polling putting them at an all-time low of 26%, could lead to a tense party conference towards the end of the year. Although it is widely expected that Merkel will be reelected party leader, it has been noted that, for the first time ever, voices within the party have found themselves having to publicly defend her. Even Wolfgang Schäuble, Merkel’s infamous finance minister and current parliamentary speaker, noted that her authority was no longer “as self-evident as it had been throughout the past three Parliaments”.

Bavaria’s regional election can hardly be considered a “revolution”. It is, however, yet another example of a trend which has – albeit, perhaps latently – featured in German politics throughout the past few years: the decline of the two Volksparteien, which in 1972 obtained 90% of the votes and, according to the latest polls, would now only reach 40%. If they wish to preserve their status as national parties – or, in the case of the SPD, if they wish to regain it – they must accept that the downward trend has been as much a result of bad campaign management and of ideological vacuity as of the country’s changing demographics. It is, after all, their move to the centre and their technocratic conception of politics which has allowed the Greens, the Free Voters and even the AfD to eat into their electorate.

Whatever happens in Bavaria, therefore, it is increasingly clear that the both the Union (the coalition comprising the CDU and CSU) and the SPD face a very clear choice: innovate or perish. Whether they make the right choice in time – and to what extent it will end the political careers of Andrea Nahles, Horst Seehofer or even Angela Merkel – will largely depend on the parties’ performance in the upcoming regional elections. If they do not do so, however, they risk a loss of bipartisan hegemony unparalleled in continental European politics.